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In 1966 a young American student living and studying in Taiwan |
landed a job on the set of the motion picture The Sand Pebbles...
as Steve McQueen's photo double!
As a result of this unique opportunity he formed a bond with the star which lasted 15 years.
In this interview with McQueenOnline, he shares his experiences on and off set with Steve McQueen.
An interview with John Norris.
MO: Can you tell me how you came to land the job as Steve’s photo double on The Sand Pebbles?
John: I was living with my parents in Taipei in 1965 - 1966. My father was in the army and stationed on Taiwan as an advisor to the Nationalist Chinese army at the time.
I attended Tamkang College and took only classes which were taught in English with English language text books.|
A friend's parent was involved managing China Air Transport (CAT) Airlines which was used to bring a lot of the Sand Pebble's movie equipment to Taipei for filming on the island of Taiwan. I went to a party his parents threw for the cast and crew. Mr. Wise, the director of the production, asked me what I was doing in Taipei, if I spoke any Mandarin and would be interested in some part-time work. It seems the American fellow that was to be Steve's stand-in and photo double ate something that disagreed with his stomach and he had recently returned to the USA for medical treatment.
I agreed and arrived at location on my little BSA 250 motorcyle. I was introduced to Steve and some of the crew and told what was expected of me. Steve was driving a VW beetle, I think there may have been some contractual thing about what car he could drive because his reputation as a 'hot shoe' was pretty common knowledge.
He (Steve) was really pleasant and we yakked quite a bit about bikes. He came to the set weeks later on a little cafe racer that seemed to really upset Mr. Wise. Apparently, there wasn't a contract stipulation regarding motorcycles! We rode together a little, maybe 3 or 4 times. There was no way I could keep up if he cranked it on.
Steve and John fool around on set|
|Steve in Taiwan, on his Cafe Racer|
MO: Like Steve, you seem to be a bit of a car and bike enthusiast yourself?
John: My wife and I enjoyed amateur car competitions. We were pretty active with the Porsche Club of America, San Diego Region in the 1970s and 1980s. We loved time trials, rally's, auto-cross and concours d'elegance events back then. I was also an avid off road biker although I had my share of street bikes.
I'd just like to say that in another interview I mentioned Steve and I rode bikes together a few times and referenced a 'Triumph' I rode... my “senior moment” took over since I had a BSA 250 at the time. I purchased the Triumph 650 Bonneville after my return from Vietnam. I think I was still addicted to the adrenaline from the past 12-13 months in Southeast Asia.
MO: Describe a typical bike ride with Steve...
John: The bike rides were up Grass Mountain, Yang Ming-san, to the National Forest or back into Taipei from Tam-sui where the filming was taking place. My biggest recollection was Steve's skill on the bike was really, really good and after trying (but failing) to keep up, I was a humbled 20 year old who discovered I wasn't a 'hot shot' biker after all!
MO: Getting back to your job on the film, what exactly does being a photo double entail?|
John: My photo double 'work' was to be filmed from a distance, going through a door or climbing a ladder, etc. The editing would merge the distance image with close ups of Steve who may have been filmed earlier or later. So, I would come to the location, go to wardrobe and put on the navy whites or blues and then make-up where sponges soaked in 'body make-up' would be applied to my arms and legs if I was wearing shorts, and the face make-up was applied last.
When told to, I was used as Steve's stand-in which primarily involved standing on marks and/or walking from mark to mark so the lighting crew could adjust their lights, screens, etc., and the sound and boom guys could do their adjustments. The cameramen adjusted their equipment on my movement or image. I became friends with everyone as I was 19-20 years old at the time. Actor Jim Jeter's wife was Candy Bergen's stand-in. Steve and Candy may have been in make-up or somewhere else while all this preparation for the scene went on.
On some days, I was used as background filler. Wardrobe dressed me in period clothes and I would stand on a 'hotel' balcony, walk through a crowd or stand on the front of the San Pablo while the fire hose was being shot at the Chinese 'agitator's'.
MO: So you actually ended up on the big screen? Can you tell us some spots in the film we can see you?
John: In a few scenes that weren't cut to the editor's floor I can be seen as an 'extra' sailor during the hosing scene of the Chinese 'militia' on the river. I have a scene grab from a DVD somewhere, I'll see if I can find it. The other 'extra' scenes, are background filler and even I have difficulty distinguishing myself from other extras.
MO: Can you describe your relationship with Steve during the filming, and offset..
John: When we were on the set, Steve was really focused on his character and the task at hand. He was pretty nice to me, even let me and Marilyn Jeter stay on set when he had the kissing scene with Candy's character (at this period of his career, he preferred the set cleared of non-essential cast and crew when doing an intimate scene). As I mentioned, the cafe bike (a Suzuki maybe) arrived and we rode a few times. He always had a smile after a ride, he truly enjoyed the freedom 2 wheels gave him. I didn't have any interaction with Steve after hours. Neil was on the island with Chad and Terry who were quite young as I recall and Steve went 'home' to them after a days work.
Oh, I recall one day I borrowed my dad's Pontiac Grand Prix to get to Tamsui where filming was being done. It was a newer model, 1965 or 1966 white, two door coupe. To me, it was a hot ride. I thought I was 'big stuff' at that time. After the day's filming I was heading back to Grass Mountain where I lived and Steve was behind me in the VW. Of course I tried to hot rod and get away. Steve was right on my back bumper and when I slowed for a curve, he went by me like a flash! I couldn't believe that the VW beat the Grand Prix (it didn't... Steve out drove me like a professor teaches a student a lesson). Big grin on his mug. Big grin on his mug the next day when he saw me on the set.
|John on set with Steve and Candice Bergen|
MO: Any other interesting or funny stories from the set of The Sand Pebbles?
John: Somewhere, I have a 8mm home reel in a can of Steve riding out to the Sand Pablo from shore. I had my dad's movie camera and as Steve neared the ship, I said something stupid like “Hey Hollywood, how about a smile?” Steve looked up and saw me filming him and gave me the finger with a great big grin. In hindsight, I think I'm lucky he didn't throw me overboard or crack me over the head with the camera. I was only 20 and thought our relationship was friendly, it was. If I had made a crack like that to Crenna, I would have been fired in a nano-second!
|John's mother Lucy with director Robert Wise on right||
MO: Did you get to know Robert Wise?|
John: Mr. Wise was like the Chairman of the Board or a CEO to many of us. Absolute respect of the man. I took instructions from him, I didn't get involved with 'small talk' or anything like that.
Remembering that I was 20 years old at the time, I was still excited to party with my friends after hours. I was earning cash and spending as fast as I made it. I came to the set one morning a little hung over from the previous night out with friends. He asked me to go over to an area on the set and have a seat while the crew did their work. I was under a bright keg light for 5 or 10 minutes before he came over and asked me how I was. He let me move out of the 'spot light' when I told him I was OK. I think it was during the set-up of the scene where Candy's character is trying to get Jake to go AWOL.
MO: Did you meet or talk to Mako (Po-han)?|
John: Yes, Mako played cards with the rest of the cast during down time. One of the fellows in the cast, Jim Jeter I think told me a little story about Mako that I still remember. Mako joined the army at the onset of the Korean conflict. One of Mako's assignments was to get captured by the North Koreans, learn where the enemy took POWs and then escape and return with the intelligence that could be used to repatriate the American POW's!
One day we were in the ship's holding room top side, playing cards. Make-up paged Mako and he excused himself from the card table. We played on and later, he came in to get something before going back out to shoot his scene. I looked up and saw him and was startled... 'startled' isn't sufficient... I was shocked! The scene he was to be filmed in was the torture scene when the Chinese army used a long knife to cut the character, Po-Han, who was hanging from the bamboo rack that was assembled on the riverside near the San Pablo. Mako looked like he was in a knife fight but was the guy without a knife!
We went onto the deck to watch the scene being filmed. It was pretty amazing. The camera was set-up really close to film Po-Han from the shoulders up. As the cameras readied, Mako would hold his breath for the longest time. Then Mr. Wise would call, "Action!" The veins on Mako's neck would be visible, the color and everything made it appear he was really being cut as he screamed. During the first pass, he really screamed, there was a burr by one of the holes in the prop knife that was actually cutting Mako! As the torturer pulled the knife across Po-Han's chest, he would gently squeeze the knife's handle and red liquid would come out of the blade to make it appear Po-Han was actually being cut.
They filmed Mako most of the sunny afternoon. One of the scenes that was cut out of the movie for being too violent was the close-up of the 'head shot' when Jake shot Mako (to stop his suffering) from the boat. The camera was really close. The prop guy had an air gun with a paraffin wax ball with red liquid inside the ball. The prop shooter aimed while Mako held his breath and when the distortion was just right, Action! Po-Han screamed in agony, veins swollen, perspiration down his face and 'Pop!' The paraffin wax ball hit Po-Han in the forehead, stuck to his skin and 'blood' trickled down between Po-Han's eyes. When we saw the clip in the daily rushes, it was so realistic, even after having watched the scene filmed over and over. But as I mentioned, that scene was deemed too violent and was left on the editing room floor.
MO: How about the other main actors?|
John: Simon ('Si') was like a great uncle to me. Big, burly and super kind. He taught me how to play 7 card stud poker during the down time (there was a lot of down time and boredom on the set for everyone when not on camera). Si and Steve were pals and in a few movies together. Si later played Steve's character's boss in Bullitt.
Crenna didn't socialize with the cast at all. He was pleasant but had spent decades on film and as a co-star he wasn't around the rest of the actors when not on camera. Same with Steve, Candy, and Attenborough.
Attenborough's character had an intimate relationship with the Maryat Adriane character on film. He wasn't around the sets ever, when he wasn't in a scene to my memory. Maryat was a pretty Eurasian (French/Thai I believe). Her fame continued after the Sand Pebbles writing or behind the scenes involvement with the X rated hit of the period, Emmanuelle.
MO: And old friend of Steve’s, Steve Ferry, was in the film, also as an extra. Did you observe the relationship between the two of them?
John: I remember Steve Ferry hanging out with the rest of the crew. He was a background sailor and received scene credit, a nice guy. Loren James was Steve's personal action-double. He was also comfortable with the rest of the cast. We all hung out on the upper deck 'big room' and played cards, etc., when not on camera. I didn't notice Ferry and Steve hanging out during my time with the Sand Pebbles.
|Actor Larry Gates, John and Richard Crenna|
MO: How long did filming last for you in Taiwan? |
John: I would guess I worked on the Taiwan film shoot for about 3 months.
MO: Tell me about your last day on the set.
John: I don't recall much about the final days of filming in Tamsui or Keelung on Taiwan. The equipment was being crated and on it's way to Hong Kong and perhaps back to the States. I remember briefly chatting with Steve before he left Taiwan and him telling me to keep my nose clean (stay out of trouble) and to keep in touch.
MO: I understand that you dropped out of college to take this job, and wound up getting conscripted for the Vietnam war as a result?
John: Yes, the class term was over when I started working on the film. I simply neglected to come back to class. I wasn't particularly responsible at that time of my life. In 1965, the US drafted youngsters into the military if certain conditions weren't met (married with children, attending advanced education, etc.)
MO: And I understand Steve and Neile kept in contact with you while you were serving in Vietnam?|
John: I left for Fort Ord, California boot camp shortly after the cast and crew left Taiwan. I went to intelligence training and then infantry officer's school (OCS). I was commissioned a second lieutenant May 24, 1967, got married June 2, 1967, and shipped off to Vietnam a few weeks later. I wrote to Steve and Neile from Vietnam. They were kind and kept me current for the 12 months I was in Vietnam. One of these days, I need to go through the boxes in the attic and try to locate the post cards, letters and a few of the photos that Steve sent.
After I returned from Vietnam, I stayed in the service for another 4 or 5 years. I called Steve's service and he returned the call when my wife and I were in the LA area visiting my parents. My wife and I were invited and went to dinner at their place in the 'Hills'.
|A postcard from Steve and Neile to John|
MO: Can you clarify the exact time frame of your invitation and visit with Steve and Neile?|
John: I returned from Vietnam in June 1968, and was assigned to a counterintelligence position at Fort Hood, Texas. My wife Jo Anne and I visited my folks in California and I called Steve to let him know I was 'home safe' from South East Asia and in the area. Steve seemed genuinely happy to hear I made it back 'to the real world' and invited Jo Anne and me to their place that evening.
MO: Tell me about your dinner at ‘The Castle’...
John: We pulled up to Steve's driveway and big castle like gate. There was a speaker set-up similar to the speakers at a drive-in theater but much fancier. I pushed a button to announce our arrival and Steve's voice replied he could see us! Then, I saw the camera up on the wall! Remember, this was 1968 and the whole access control set-up was really impressive. The gate opened electronically and I drove into the court area by the garage.
Steve came out of the house in a white T-shirt, wheat jeans and his customary chukkas (probably English Sanders Playboys). We exchanged hugs and back slaps, I introduced him to Jo Anne and we headed into the house. Neile welcomed me 'home' (to the USA) and showed Jo Anne around the living area. Neile and Jo Anne did the 'kitchen duty' for Chad and Terry while Steve and I went to the garage. He told me we were going to get Chinese take out he called in.
The garage had a couple of motorcycles (I don't recall seeing the cafe bike he had in Taiwan), a beautiful Ferrari that I think was either dark blue or maroon with tan leather interior, his silver 911S and Neile's light green 911L (the 911L was only made in 1968). Steve said he hadn't driven her car yet so we hopped into the 'L' and he struggled with the new Porsche automatic transmission that was introduced in 1968. Apparently, the hand on the shift knob engages or releases the transmission clutch (no clutch peddle on the floor). It was exciting and frightening to be a passenger while Steve was figuring out the way to shift because he was learning at speed!
Steve told me he felt so lucky to have the home and Neile, the fame and cars. He seemed to worry that the dream would somehow end and he would wake-up and the ride would be over. I don't know why he shared these thoughts with me, I was 15 years his junior but we seemed to click, particularly after I was drafted and sent to Vietnam.
We got to the Chinese restaurant and came in from the back 'take out' door. We were told the order would be just a few minutes. So, while standing by the counter Steve tells me he 'forgot' his wallet and asked if I had mine. I did and, I paid for the chow. Then, a lady came in and breezed past us asking for her order. Steve looked at me and we shrugged our shoulders at her noisy entitlement. She paid and was obviously impatient. She looked at Steve and was confused for a moment and asked if they had ever met. Steve told her, “no m'am but maybe I parked your car at the Oscars.” She dismissed us and stood by impatiently for her food order.
Another postcard, sent by Steve while on a fishing trip in Canada||
Our order was ready and the server said, “thank you Mr. McQueen, see you again” or words to that effect. When the lady heard his name, recognition clicked in and her jaw dropped
and face seemed a shade or two of pink as we walked out with the chow! |
The house had a pool table and a keg beer dispenser built into the wall as I recall. It was incredibly impressive to me in 1968. We ate, chatted about them trying to 'quit smoking like Joanne and Paul' and other friends. Anyway, the evening came to a close and as we were getting ready to leave, Jo Anne asked Steve for his autograph. While I felt a little awkward Neile jumped in and said they had some publicity photos from the Sand Pebbles Steve would sign for Jo Anne.
Handshakes and hugs and off we went from 27 Oakmont Drive with grand memories.
MO: You mention your wife asking for Steve’s autograph... was she a fan herself? Did you both go to the cinema to watch The Sand Pebbles together?|
John: I think I can say truthfully that everyone in my age group who watched TV as a youngster was a Steve McQueen fan and this included Jo Anne. We saw the movie together but she wasn't particularly impressed with my 'work' (laughs). After all, my name wasn't in the credits and the nano-second shots of me were edited in such a way it was impossible to distinguish the 'real' Jake Holman from me. I was fully identifiable in the fire hose scene but not enough to impress my then girlfriend (and wife-to-be) at the time!
MO: I understand Steve offered you a job at around this time, but you declined?
John: I wish I could locate the Solar Productions letterhead letter Steve sent me after I returned from Vietnam. It is probably in one of the many boxes in the attic, some day I'll go through everything so my kids won't have to after I've gone to the other side. Any way, as best my memory serves, Steve offered me a position, no title was mentioned and help getting into one of the California colleges if I chose to leave the military. He mentioned his partner Robert Relyea in the letter but I forget the context. If/when I find the letter, I'd be more than happy to send you a scanned copy.
Jo Anne and I talked it over briefly and decided I was probably more suited to my military career, I was a 1st Lieutenant and expected to become a Captain shortly thereafter. Plus, I was scheduled to attend advanced training in counterespionage and counterintelligence. That was the beginning of my career path to corporate security.
MO: And yet The Sand Pebbles was not your last experience working on a McQueen movie set...
John: Several years later, perhaps the early 1970-71 era I was still in the army but had advanced to the grade of Captain and had a 'special agent' status. I commanded an intelligence group based in North Carolina but had a mission in Austin, Texas. My crew flew me from Fort Bragg, North Carolina on a Beechcraft Baron to Bergstrom Air Force Base near Austin.
One of the crew heard about the Getaway filming that was taking place in San Marcos. Since we were in Texas a week's advance of the group who was flying into Bergstrom from Pope Airfield, we rented a car and set off to see if we could find the set. We found the set and by passed security. During a break in the filming, Steve saw us and walked over to say hello.
I introduced Steve to my pilot and his co-pilot and told him we were in the areas for a few days before my unit was scheduled to arrive. Steve told me to hold on a minute and disappeared.
He returned and introduced me to a wardrobe manager and had that McQueen grin and told me he 'needed a stand-in' for a few days. Said something about making enough 'coin' to cover the cost
of the car rental! I was put in Steve's character's clothes while he drank a beer and chatted with the pilots. Later, Steve got into character and they filmed a shooting scene involving
Al Lettieri's character. I spent several days on the Getaway set before heading back to Austin. It was the last time I saw Steve although I spoke to him on the phone several times.
MO: Can you elaborate more on the goings on on-set?
John: The Getaway atmosphere seemed more 'relaxed' than the Sand Pebbles. Not quite as tight and conservative (Mr. Wise was like a corporate CEO and Sam Peckinpaugh appeared more casual). Rumors about alcohol consumption on the set made sense even though I was only on location for a few days. Steve and Ali were obviously falling in love. I remember sitting at a table eating lunch by her and a little small talk. I told her Steve's (42) birthday was 'tomorrow' which could have been a disaster. A birthday cake was brought out during lunch the next day and Steve seemed upset until someone told him it was Ali's idea. She didn't tell him I 'yakked' to my relief as he seemed sensitive to the age numbers at the time. The photo of me in wardrobe on the set and Steve shirtless with the Bud in his hand was taken on his 42nd birthday.
|Steve and John on Steve's 42nd birthday|
MO: I understand you witnessed some sort of on-set fight that occurred on set between Steve and Sam Peckinpah?|
John: I wouldn't describe the Sam v Steve incident as a fight, it was more like a a pissed off director grappling with his star. A scene was being set up at a farm outside of San Marcos, Texas. Peckinpah was yakking with his crew about something or other. They were standing by a culvert and Steve had a prop. It was a big, silver longer barreled pistol. The gun was loaded with blanks. While Sam was yakking, Steve walked over, behind Sam and fired a round off (pistol pointed to the ground). Everyone jumped but Sam jumped the highest. Sam was startled and pissed and grabbed Steve in a bear hug, yelling and cursing a bit. They tumbled down the culvert hollering and cursing. Some of the crew, the grips or sound guys ran down the small hill to break the two up. Steve had the biggest grin on his face, like a kid who just took an apple pie off some widow's window sill. Every thing was OK within a few minutes but it sure got everyone's attention!
MO: From your interactions with Ali on The Getaway, how would you compare Steve’s dynamics and relationship with her vs with Neile?
John: While Ali was a beauty and sweet gal, my strongest memory will always be Steve and Neile as a couple. They were companions, loving husband and wife at the time of my experiences. I read Neile's book later in the 80's and called her to say I really enjoyed the book and her courage for writing it. She was remarried and still a very gracious lady.
MO: Backtracking a bit, you mention keeping in touch with Steve via phone, would you like to share anything about the conversations?
John: I called Steve a few times after I left the army, just brief conversations. I wasn't aware he was sick until the press reported his illness. Before he passed, I called him in Palm Springs to let him know the Porsche Club of America was having a big meet in San Diego and wondered if he would be interested in seeing the event, and maybe doing some track time. Steve was married to Barbara Minty and thanked me for the invite but declined. That was the last conversation we had, I think he died the next year.
MO: Regarding your final phone chat with Steve... you were unaware he was ill at the time?
John: In my last phone conversation with Steve, I wasn't aware he was sick. I suppose that was a good thing. I would not be prepared or, know what to say had I known of his illness.
I suppose I had a feeling of sadness and helplessness when I heard Steve was terminal. I wanted to call him but, I couldn't. He made amends with his family and those he needed to reach out to. In a way, I'm sorry I didn't call but it was not meant to be.
MO: Any lasting impressions Steve made on you (via film or real life) that you would like to share?
John: Steve was a star. He knew he was a star when I associated with him. But he was also a really decent person. He didn't have to write to me when I was in harms way, he didn't have to open his home to us but he did. I was 22 or 23 by then and taken out of my comfort zone by the draft. I made it back OK and I think he was 'thanking me' in his own way for serving. He had been there, done that. The McQueen chapter of my life was one of the better experiences I had and look back at with fondness.
Picture Gallery - click the small icons to see full sized picture
John with Steve
and Candice Bergen
Larry Gates, John
and Richard Crenna
Lucy Norris with Robert Wise
Larry Gates hamming it up
John in period costume
John with his father and
Joe Di Reda & Gavin MacLeod
John with Steve on set
Ali MacGraw on set
John driving an army jeep - 1968
Postcard from Canada - front
Postcard from Canada - back|
John in the army
Two postcards from Steve
FBI letter of commendation
John riding Triumph
Screencap of John in 'The Sand Pebbles'
John Norris spent seven years in the U.S. army's military intelligence branch.
He was honorably discharged as a captain and special agent in the early 1970s.
Awarded a private investigator license, he began a corporate multi-national security career in retail, oil and high tech industries. For the past 17 years he has been employed as the Vice President of security and special projects for a high-tech Israeli based employer.
He lives with his wife Jo Anne near the beach in Southern California, and enjoys surfing, time with his four grandchildren, daughter and son and their families.